Northern Ireland enjoys rare night of calm as riots abate

Reuters News
Posted: Jan 09, 2013 6:01 PM

By Stephen Mangan

BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland enjoyed its first night of calm in almost a week on Wednesday when protests at the removal of the British flag from Belfast City Hall passed off peacefully.

Mostly pro-Irish Republican councilors voted last month to end a century-old tradition of flying the flag every day, unleashing the most sustained unrest since a 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of bloodshed between Republicans and Unionists determined to stay in the United Kingdom.

Pro-British loyalists protested again in Belfast on Wednesday and police said rallies had spread to Londonderry, which this month became the first center to take on the new title of UK City of Culture.

But with the Union Flag flying at City Hall for the first time in over a month - to mark the birthday of Prince William's wife Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge - there was no repeat of the brick-throwing battles that have raged for much of the last five weeks.

However, more protests are planned this week.

The flag is set to be raised on only 16 more days this year and community workers warned that more efforts may be needed to ease the tensions, which have led rioters as young as 11 to pelt police with petrol bombs and fireworks.

"I think there are two things that might stop it: Someone loses their life or gets seriously injured, or those kids actually get bored of it and police tactics get refined," said Mark Houston, director of the East Belfast Mission group, which is working with protesters to try to quell the unrest.

"Those two things are negative ways of it stopping. A more positive way would be alternative means of their grievances being heard. The danger of that is it could take a few weeks or a few months to emerge."

Unionist politicians - who share power in the British-controlled province with their Republican former enemies - will hold the first meeting of a new 'Unionist Forum' on Thursday to address the community's grievances.

Northern Ireland's police chief has warned that prolonged unrest could harm the force's ability to deal with what it calls a severe threat from mostly Catholic anti-British dissidents.

Militant Irish nationalists, responsible for the killings of three police officers and two soldiers since 2009, have so far not reacted violently to the flag protests, limiting any threat to the 15-year-old peace settlement.

On the streets of Belfast, most people remain unwilling to see their city, which has seen its reputation badly damaged by the recent violence, return to the sectarian conflict that cost some 3,600 lives over three decades.

"Everybody has the right to protest, but in a peaceful manner," said East Belfast resident Richard Barbour, standing outside City Hall.

"I'm a Unionist but have no problem saying that what's gone on is nothing short of a disgrace."

(Writing by Padraic Halpin in Dublin; Editing by Kevin Liffey)